Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s new book, The Watch, is a novel of war set against the backdrop of the American military intervention in Afghanistan. We are pleased to present this interview with Roy-Bhattacharya.
Q. What drew you to Afghanistan?
Joydeep Roy Bhattacharya (JDR): I’ll paraphrase something by the poet Iqbal by way of an answer: Afghanistan is the heart of Asia, and when Afghanistan suffers, Asia bleeds.
It’s a wildly beautiful country, with a wildly beautiful people, and one of the last places in the world that appears to have successfully held its own against misguided outside influences. What’s not to love?
Look, I live in the countryside because my soul needs it. And I wrote about Afghanistan because I needed to dwell, if only for a while, in one of the world’s last truly remote places.
Q: Western readers are going to be especially interested in your relationship with the US Army officers who helped you write the book.
JDR: They didn’t help me write the book. I wrote the entire draft without recourse to experts, and I believe that anyone who’s followed the wars of the last three decades will have gained a relative degree of expertise about these things. But the officers fine-tuned the manuscript and corrected my many bloopers, without a doubt.
Q: Is that what made you decide to buttress your novel with an ancient Greek tragedy?
JDR: Not just any Greek tragedy, but Antigone, who, for me, transcends time and place, quite literally.
Q: Why a Pashtun Antigone? Why Afghanistan?
JDR: I needed a protagonist who could serve as a moral yardstick of the degree of injury done to the Afghans by outside powers. A woman who simply has no interest in compromising with the folks who’ve slaughtered her family and devastated her country. She rejects their overtures in their entirety, and, in that, becomes a microcosm of the rejection by the Pashtuns, especially, of all the material temptations offered by Western civilization – in her specific case, both physiological and therapeutic rehabilitation; and, in the case of her people, all the material detritus that will be left behind by the Americans following their inevitable (and increasingly precipitate) withdrawal.
Q. Those are strong words. It would imply a taking of sides. And yet, in the novel, you are remarkably even-handed in your depiction of the viewpoints of both the Afghan and the American characters.
JDR: I’m a novelist and I don’t believe in taking sides as I write: that’s the task of the propagandist. My personal beliefs and private opinions do not matter within the covers of the book. I’ve no interest in either betraying my characters or holding the reader’s hand and telling her how to think, even as I realize the latter will not make me popular with a readership increasingly accustomed to being thereby directed. What can I say? I’m old-fashioned.
Q. What made you decide to write The Watch through the first person viewpoints of seven different characters?
JDR: First of all, I needed to get myself out of the picture altogether and I realized that a good way to do this would be to let each character speak in order to enable the reader to see through their eyes, as it were. It gave the characters their necessary autonomy and made my own work easier. That’s the terrific thing about writing fiction, it allows me the freedom to do this. It’s entirely subjective, it engages the heart of the reader as much as the head, and for my own intents and purposes it’s more effective than journalism’s ostensible objectivity.
Q. You don’t think journalism can be objective?
JDR: The moment anyone puts a pen to paper it becomes a subjective exercise. That’s why I like the phrase creative non-fiction: it’s accurate.
Q. Can you tell us about your research – how long did it take? How many soldiers did you speak to in the course of your research?
JDR: It would be difficult to give you an exact time span, given that I’ve been following these wars ever since they began years ago. I suppose I’ve always been fascinated by military culture. But I wrote the first draft in ten weeks, sending each completed chapter to my friend and agent, Nicole Aragi, who is also my first reader. As for my conversations with the army officers, that commenced after the book was complete, and it helped that I knew exactly what I wanted from them so as not to waste their time.
Q. Are any of the characters based on real people?
JDR: Nick Frobenius is a composite of a Marine Captain and an Army Captain, both of whom are fabulous writers – and intensely intellectual. The rest are invented out of whole cloth.
Q. Did anything in your research overturn your expectations or force you to reassess what you thought you knew? Did anything you discovered shock you?
JDR: I’d had an idea about the degradation of women in Pashtun culture, but the magnitude and degree shocked me. I must say that this, more than anything else, influenced my decision to have a strong Pashtun woman as the protagonist – both as a standing rebuke and as an aspirational ideal.
Q. Finally, what do you hope readers will take from the book?
JDR: Greater empathy and comprehension – for both those who fight these endless wars and for their victims – than when they began the book.
Thanks to Random House of Canada for their assistance with this interview.